How ‘Dirty Harry’ Paved the Way for 50 Years of Complicated Movie Cops

·8-min read

One thing that all the great, iconic, landmark Hollywood films of any era have in common is universality. As Clint Eastwood’s iconic serial killer thriller “Dirty Harry” turns 50 this week, the Don Siegel film’s rocky critical reception back in 1971 only temporarily obscured the pic’s primal pull and lasting (not “Sudden”) impact. Like “Casablanca” and “The Best Years of Our Lives,” both powerfully relevant to World War II survivors, or “Grapes of Wrath,” which spoke to Depression era audiences, or “In the Heat of the Night” with its relevance to the Civil Rights revolution, “Harry” was the man of the Nixon/Law and Order moment, which we now see was much a bigger harbinger of tumultuous social change than just Tricky Dick and the transitory winds blown up by a single political figure.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a multitude of globally significant events and trends shaped the public’s tastes – and fears – both here and abroad.

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Distrust of authority, a staple characteristic of the 60s youth culture, got revved up by seismic shocks such as 1968’s Chicago Democratic Convention catastrophe and 1970’s Kent State massacre here, and the Prague Spring crackdown and the Paris to Cannes and Beyond revolution Over There.

Fears of lawlessness were stoked by the newly victorious GOP during the 1968 election and the Nixon/Agnew presidential leadership team’s almost daily exploitation of those fears kept crime on page one for several years.

Vietnam put a kind of graphic violence that Americans had never seen, on an endless television loop.

Woodstock’s peaceful vibes were drowned in the blood of the Manson killings and the Altamont debacle. “I saw Satan laughing with delight” wasn’t just a casual observation in 1971, it was a lyric from an earworm hit song called “American Pie,” which was played on every station in the country.

Enter “Dirty Harry.” 50 years old and still remarkable for director Don Siegel’s virtuoso, operatic staging of its many memorable action sequences, driven by the film’s simple crime tale of a psycho serial killer and the unorthodox homicide detective on his trail in early ‘70s San Francisco, “Dirty Harry” is a landmark American policier not just because it kicks major action film ass, (and it still does) but because it so effectively tapped into the era’s anxieties and wound up completely transcending the cop film genre.

“Harry” spoke loudly and forcefully not just to Nixon and Agnew’s law and order conservative base, but to liberals and even hippies who responded to the film’s exhilarating joust between Good and Evil. “Easy Rider,” the breakout hit of 1969 culminates with some good ole boys shooting them some hippies. James Dickey’s 1970 novel “Deliverance” pits some regular guys against the backwoods cousins of those good ole boys and proceeds to graphically and violently turn those emblematic late ‘60s American tables.

By 1971, so many genies had escaped from so many bottles, that movie theaters already bursting with violent actioners thanks to newly liberal rules for violent content, became even bloodier as the filmmakers focused their cameras on socially relevant subjects that just happened to be relentlessly, often terrifyingly violent, and depraved.

In just that one year, 1971, half of the annual top 20 box office earners were crime movies of one stripe or another. Along with Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry,” you have: William Friedkin’s heroin trade epic, “The French Connection,” breakout indies via white Native American wannabe Tom Laughlin’s “Billy Jack” and black poet Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971), the most famous of the popular blaxploitation oeuvre, “Shaft.” Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” imagines gang crime in the future, while Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute” makes crime romantic; there’s a crime thriller without cops, Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty for Me” and Daniel Mann’s “Willard” is a crime story where the criminals are literally, as in James Cagney’s famous epithet, “dirty rats.”

But if “Dirty Harry” simply gave voice to the fears of the era, or simply entertained by virtue of Clint Eastwood’s timeless star quality and Siegel’s total cinema mastery, it wouldn’t have endured as one of the landmark American crime films of the last century. For better or worse, it changed the course of American genre filmmaking and the culture in general. “Dirty Harry’s” key phrase, “Do I feel lucky?” fueled a million bad standup comic impersonations of the baddest of all bad cops.

And the idea that cops needed to be as twisted and bloodthirsty as the villains they’re chasing won’t be foreign to anyone who’s seen any of the Batman films, whether directed by Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher or Christopher Nolan. But back in simpler times, such as the pre comic book and fantasy film franchise dominated era of the ‘70s, superheroes were no match for real life crimefighting heroes who excelled at and/or reveled in stomping lawbreaking creeps wherever they’re found.

While Peter Yates’ “Bullitt” (1968) established the cool, hip, tough, relentless cop before “Harry,” “Bullitt” never aspired to transcend the limitations of the cop movie and it doesn’t rise to the mythical level of “Harry’s” surreal urban landscapes and it’s no match for “Harry’s” powerful, archetypal war which is less cop vs killer and more knight vs dragon.

Clint Eastwood with director Don Siegel on the set of “Dirty Harry” - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection
Clint Eastwood with director Don Siegel on the set of “Dirty Harry” - Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

In the hands of Don Siegel, Kezar Stadium in the nighttime fog is a kind of Wagnerian valley where spirits collide. And when Harry finally blasts Scorpio under the suddenly noon day bright field lights, Siegel delivers maybe the greatest zoom cut in the history of movies. From Harry’s POV, we look down into Scorpio’s contorted, anguished face as he screams in pain and begs for mercy.

Then, in less than a heartbeat, the camera is now skybound and flying away from the pathetic, sobbing psycho killer laid out on a hundred yards of green football field. It’s as someone, a bird perhaps, has seen too much and must flee. Or perhaps they’re fleeing because they know they’ve revealed too much.

There are at least a dozen such moments or set pieces in “Harry,” all expertly edited and paced so shrewdly that the cat and mouse simplicity of the story never slows down long enough for the viewer to analyze it. “Harry” bursts with almost too many unforgettable moments, too much transgressive behavior such as the sequence where Scorpio almost romantically engages with the guy he’s paying to beat him to a pulp. The midnight rendezvous, where Scorpio mercilessly drags Harry across myriad San Francisco paths, parks, and landmarks, finally concludes with a potent reminder of God’s absence in the story at hand.

“Harry” slides in nicely beside several other kinetically poetic genre film masterpieces composed by Siegel. There’s the black and white poem of ‘50s paranoia, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers;” the elegiac yet darkly, ironic ode to both the end of the West and the end of the Wayne, “The Shootist;” his swampy and steamy Civil War chamber study, “Beguiled;” and Siegel’s Bay Area (again) paean to prisons and Warner Bros. movies about them, “Escape from Alcatraz.”

So even though “Billy Jack” sold more tickets than “Harry,” the earnest and often-hamfisted Counterculture meets Beaucoup Beatdowns indie hit was hard to replicate, and few did, save Laughlin who also cleaned up with “The Trial of Billy Jack.”

But following “Harry” in the next few years of the ‘70s, cops like “Harry,” i.e. with vigilante justice on the brain and/or vigilantes who think they’re cops, start showing up everywhere. There’s Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” (1974) which posits that just about any Tom, Dick or Dirty Harry, even an architect named Paul, can help clean up the streets; Phil Karlson’s “Walking Tall” (1973) turns the urbane, natty Harry into the flannel wearing red state local gendarme Buford Pusser; Jonathan Kaplan’s “White Line Fever” (1975) asserts that even a simple truckdriver can clear house on deadly crooks but may not live to brag about it; Ivan Passer’s wry, ironic “Law and Disorder” (1974) turns a wonderfully jaundiced and Czech eye on much of the tough on crime crowd’s own vigilante tomfoolery.

Now, here we are, in another moment where crime is (said to be) getting the upper hand. Smashing and grabbing is smashing and grabbing headlines, homicide rates in the big cities haven’t been this high since Reagan was president and crack was new. Retailers are boarding up their windows and again the GOP is pounding home the point, this time to a Democratic Administration clearly on the defensive.

Is this the moment for another “Harry?” In my view, there will only be one, just as there will only be that one strange moment when the hippie dream crashed into several dark realities and Americans still believed a tall guy with a big gun was going to blow away all the badness in the world.

Does “Harry” still work as a great movie, as a piece of film art, as an engrossing genre entertainment? I would suggest if you’ve never seen it, or if it’s been a decade or five since your last viewing, that you might take a chance on “Harry.”

But that leads to this obvious question you’ve got to ask yourself: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”

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